Heavy hitting. Timely. Controversial. Necessary. Real life. But certainly not depressing.
That’s the attitude of Different Strokes! Performing Arts Collective managing artistic director Stephanie Hickling Beckman and the actors involved, who are committed to staging plays with a message.
“Our mission is to present theatre that confronts issues of social diversity as reflected in the world around us: a world that isn’t always pretty or on its best behavior. We do not choose our plays; the seemingly apparent needs of our community tend to choose the plays we produce,” Beckman points out one Saturday afternoon after rehearsal in the Grove Arcade basement.
Bullying in the schools, in Asheville, and around the country is what prompted Different Strokes! to take on their latest production, The Laramie Project, based on a series of interviews with Laramie, Wyo. (population just over 26,000) residents just after the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard (who was gay). Shepard was taken out in the country, beaten and tortured by two local young men and tied to a barbed-wire fence. He spent 18 hours strapped to that fence, until a local cyclist found Shepard unconscious, and at first thought him to be a scarecrow.
Part of the proceeds of this show will benefit Youth OUTright, a local group that supports and empowers gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth to be confident and vital members of the Western North Carolina community, according to Beckman.
“We as a group of artists and people who care about this community, have a responsibility to take on all taboo subjects—- lay it all out there on the table, and see how many of the unspoken issues are affecting so many,” says Beckman. It could be Anywhere, USA, or it could be Asheville.”
And though The Laramie Project has had thousands of performances around the world, Beckman says the show is as relevant today as it was when it premiered in 2000.
“For me this play is no longer about Laramie or a particular victim,” says Beckman. “Hate crimes are committed everywhere in every minute of every day. Even here in Asheville, although many times the crimes are described simply as robberies and not told to be the hate crimes that they really are. Until federal hate crime legislation includes sexual orientation as a protected class, this story and those like it cannot be outdated, overstated or overdone.”
But Beckman is not just doing a repeat of what has already been shown. The original script called for 60 characters to be played by eight actors, and in Beckman’s mind seemed like a series of dialogues. Dialogues that didn’t really pull her into the story, or make her care very much about the story of Matthew Shepard, even though it was an important tale and one she was originally drawn to so she could learn more about what happened.
Instead, she decided to turn those dialogues into more of a play, and not just a play about a man who was a victim of gay-bashing. It all turned into something much more passionate. More personal.
“Wake up, y’all,” Beckman says. “Hate crimes exist not only against gays, but against Jewish people, Muslims, blacks, homeless people, women and so many more. It’s about what we as a society allow to happen to people every day. Whether it’s with our fists, or our mouths.”
Her actors too have learned so much more than they realized they would. In having to play different characters, some at odds with themselves and some the total opposite of another character they’re playing, each has had to take hard looks at their own feelings and perhaps judgments they did not realize they were making against other people. Straight men have had to reach down and understand gay men. White men have had to try and understand what it feels to be a Latino. A mother learned to look into the eyes of a “You’re going to hell because you’re gay” preacher and somehow realized she must try and reach that preacher.
In the end, we not only see the slice of the ugliness that happened in Laramie, Wyo., but we also see the changes human beings goes through once they’ve been so close to the face of the horrific.
As Beckman puts it, “Some of the people in Laramie seem to remain untouched, but others, their lives and attitudes are changed forever. And ultimately, the recognition of all of those attitudes is what we want the audience to see, feel and leave thinking about and perhaps even start their own conversations.”
The cast features Mandy Bean, Scott Bean, Jeremy Carter, Kirstin Daniel, Patrick Hackney, Roberto Hess, Rod Leigh, Peter Millis, Jonathan Milner, Carla Pridgen, Hope Spragg and Jim Slautich. Stephanie Hickling Beckman directs, and Catilin Lane serves as stage manager.
The show runs two weekends only: Dec. 1-10, Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. at the BeBe Theatre in downtown Asheville. Tickets for $15 at the door and $12 in advance. Reservations strongly recommended and may be made online at http://www.differentstrokesavl.com or by calling 275-2093.